Watching a little girl extort her desperate neighbor for intel into his ex-wife’s romantic situation, the crowd in the New Mission Theater erupts in a laughter that betrays its roots. This kind of craftiness, bordering on deceit, is a kind of attitude towards life most Latin Americans recognize – even in themselves. It was a recurring source of humor in ‘Alma’ (Chile, 2015), the film that opened the SF Latino Film Festival.
The laughs from the crowd, just like the movie, may have needed subtitles for the non-Latinos in the audience. That is some of what is special about a Latino film festival – a group of people that generally don’t get to see themselves in U.S. cinemas, get to watch films that reflect their cultural idiosyncrasies.
That will be happening through September as the SF Latino Film festival screens 45 Latin American-themed movies in select cinemas in the Mission District, Oakland and Berkeley. Beyond distribution, the organizers understand the festival, now in its eight year, offers Latinos here the experience of recognizing themselves onscreen.
“The audience may say that it’s the same, but they like to see people like themselves on screen and listen to their own language, even with a different accent,” said Lucho Ramirez, the director of the festival since its new beginnings as the now defunct San Francisco International Latino Film Festival in 2008.
Ramirez, a Chicago-born entrepreneur and son of Mexican immigrants, said the connection with a Latin American film can be even more intense for an expat audience.
“Hispanic people from different countries get to know each other and mix while abroad, and end up recognizing each other as cousins or family,” he said.
From Latino to English-speaking audiences, the attendance at the festival has grown steadily since the first year, in 2009, and organizers expect 5,000 people to attend this year.
This year’s selection includes 45 feature films, short films and documentaries from 12 countries including the United States. Except for the special selection from Brazil, the spotlighted country of this year’s festival, almost all films are in Spanish with English subtitles.
The movies address not only the what Latin American residents in the United States may have left behind, but the new challenges they experience here.
Such is the story of ‘Summer Sacrament,’ directed by Indian filmmaker Lionel Desai and shot entirely in the Mission District. In it, a young immigrant boy is taken by a neighbor’s family and nurtured by the local Catholic church after his mother’s deportation to Mexico.
With its mix of Spanish and English and a camera that often lingers on the peculiarities of the Mission, the film depicts Latin American life in the district.
“Out of all the neighborhoods of San Francisco, the Mission seems from a different time and place because of its sounds, the noises, the colors, all of which I wanted to preserve because it’s changing so fast,” recalled Desai.
Raised as a Catholic in Kenya, the director – a tech engineer by day – moved to the Bay Area a decade ago, and visiting the Mission reminded him of his childhood. The film’s script, however, only came alive after the participation of the local cast and crew.
“I only wrote the outline, but I don’t speak Spanish,” he explained. What he remembered as “great moments” from his Catholic upbringing could not possibly look the same in a different culture, and his story needed the guidance and input of his Spanish-speaking cast.
“Latino people know better than I do how the story should sound and how it should play out,” Desai said.
The film presents a recognizable imprint of Latin American life: a loving family and a community of people who take care of each other. “That’s them, loving and caring,” said Desai.
Because of its popularity, the movie was screened twice in a row on Sunday afternoon, and may have other showings scheduled for later in the festival.
Outside of seeing one’s peers onscreen, Ramirez said the festival helps to expose a wider audience to Latin American productions.
“As a big population, we look for our own place in politics, but one of the best ways of expressing ourselves is through art and cultural life,” he said.
Up-and-coming Latino filmmakers based in the United States are often strong in the short film program and are some of the main beneficiaries.
“Latin American directors such as [Alejandro Gonzalez] Iñarritu or [Alfonso] Cuaron have won prizes and box-office prestige with their outlook of American life, but with a different style,” said Andres Gallegos, the 30-year-old Chilean director of the short film ‘Stay,’ originally a Master’s project at San Francisco State University.
In his film, a aging man driven to revisit his past searches through photo albums for his most precious memory. ‘Stay,’ part of the short film selection ‘Made in Califas,’ will be screened again outside of the festival, on October 7 at 7 p.m. at the Public Library’s Koret Auditorium.
Such films, Ramirez explained, demonstrate a brand of filmmaking that values script and storytelling over budget restraints.
Gallegos added: “Unlike times past, Latin American films have adapted to the structure and technical standards of the mainstream, but it is still as reactionary – always lending its voice to the less represented- as it used to be.”
The SF Latino Film Festival will run through October 1st in selected San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley cinemas. The schedule can be found here.